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Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai Is the Best Book of the Century (for Now)

Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Photo: Courtesy of the publisher

Ask a set of writers and critics to select books for a new canon, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that the one most of them name is a novel about the nature of genius. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.

Like many epics, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai charts the education of its hero and proceeds by means of a quest narrative. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. That’s not to mention his acquisition of mathematics, physics, art history, music, and an eccentric taste for tales of world exploration.

Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.

So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.

The Last Samurai strives to take in the whole world from the vantage point of material deprivation. Most of the book takes place on two floors of an unrepaired house Sibylla rents for £150 a month, and she pays the rent by typing up — digitizing, we’d say nowadays — the archives of obscure magazines for a paltry hourly wage: a bullshit job from the early days of the New Economy, already obsolete. DeWitt’s stroke of comic brilliance is to combine the pathetic and parodic in Sibylla’s efforts at survival as Ludo diligently ploughs through the epics of world literature. Because they can’t afford to heat their flat they spend winter days on the Tube; endless revolutions on the Circle Line where bystanders remark on the oddity of a little boy reading Homer in the original. Sibylla tabulates how often they say it’ll be good for his vocabulary or that it’ll screw him up, without ever saying how marvelous it is to read the Odyssey in Greek at whatever age.

That art and knowledge, achievement and adventure, are worthy things in and of themselves, not just as a means of attaining capital or worldly status — this is the idea that anchors The Last Samurai and motivates Sibylla’s education of Ludo and his quest to find his true father (not his biological father, whom he finds and discards). It’s a quest that’s also part of his constant process of becoming (a hero whose quest ends, we’re told, turns into a villain). The cramped spaces of the first half of the novel open up into a series of narratives about Ludo’s potential fathers that encompass the globe and deliver a set of moral lessons.

The Last Samurai is, in a few ways, an instruction manual. It contains an ethics of living and learning, but it also attempts to tell its readers how to learn and to show them that they can learn things that they might have thought beyond their grasp. DeWitt told me this in 2016 when I interviewed her for this magazine, and I didn’t quite understand what she meant until I returned to it this summer. Part of the reason might have been that I studied ancient Greek in college and had ignored how subtle her treatment of Ludo’s Greek education is, the way that she’s also trying to instruct the reader in the rudiments of the Greek language (as well as Japanese, Finnish, and Icelandic). You, too, can learn Greek! the novel insists.

What is the value of these things? They open Ludo’s mind to the wider world, to many cultures, and to the expanse of time. They also give him the sense that there are other selves within him that he only need unlock. Things are different for Sibylla, who is stuck with her son and her drudgery. For her, culture, knowledge, and other languages are an escape, fleeting but always available. Mother and son watch a video cassette of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times over the course of the novel — the idea is that a masterpiece is inexhaustible in what it can show us about the world.

The Last Samurai is another such masterpiece. It’s an accident of recent history that it’s taken the culture some time to realize it. Initial critical reaction was mixed, with the negative reviews bending toward the anti-intellectual. There was a sense that she was as ambitious as writers coming out around the same time — Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon — but her novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism. Still, the book became something like a cult favorite, passed around between friends, which is how I got my first copy. Belated appraisals by Daniel Mendelsohn (a classicist) and Jenny Turner turned the tide, as did the warm reception accorded DeWitt’s long-delayed second novel, Lightning Rods (2011), a dark comedy of an entirely different (but equally original) nature. DeWitt published her first novel in her early forties, later than we expect our geniuses to emerge; remained an outsider to New York and London publishing; and has famously tangled with the industry, to her own mental and financial distress, but also to the detriment of the culture. If ever an author deserved a MacArthur “genius” grant, it’s her.

As Ludo could tell you, worldly success or obscurity is beside the point when it comes to the greatness of a book like The Last Samurai. On the other hand, the lives of artists, their triumphs, and their defeats constitute much of the book’s subject matter, with Ludo, Sibylla, and the boy’s “true” father all more or less coded as artists themselves. Another of the novel’s big ideas is that there are no limits on the possibility of artistic achievement. That may be the best reason to say it’s not too soon to declare The Last Samurai a canonical work: It drinks deeply in the canon while at the same time renewing it. And that’s why, DeWitt once told me, she quit her career as a classicist at Oxford to become a writer: “There are so many things that have never been done.”

*A version of this article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai Is the Book of the Century